Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canadian Forces allowances need rethink

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When Canadian Forces members living on one of Canada's military bases report having to take second jobs, sell possessions, raid RRSPs and keep their kids out of sports such as hockey -- just to make ends meet -- something is drastically wrong.

But that's what military ombudsman Pierre Daigle found after he probed more than 50 complaints from Canadian Forces members and families posted to CFB Cold Lake (4 Wing) in Alberta.

His report this month rightly calls for immediate steps to level out a cost-of-living imbalance that, Mr. Daigle said, has prompted significant numbers of Canadian Forces members to retire or leave the military rather than report to Cold Lake. At the same time, attrition rates among those based in Cold Lake -- where the cost of living has soared in recent years due to a local boom in oil and gas development -- are expected to hit 12 to 13 per cent this year.

Members of the military are paid, reasonably enough, based on rank, not where they're posted. But cost of living varies among the Canadian Forces' 32 domestic bases, including rents for on-base housing, which are set based on CMHC recommendations to reflect local housing prices. On-base housing in Cold Lake is twice that of Greenwood, for example.

Since CF members don't always choose where they're sent, in 2000 the military set up an allowance, the Post Living Differential, to lessen disparities in cost of living for its members across Canada. The problem, Mr. Daigle's report said, is that PLD rates have been frozen at 2009 levels for more than three years. Meanwhile, the cost of living at some bases, such as Cold Lake, has soared.

Other problems with the PLD include a lack of understanding among the ranks as to how it's set or works. Inexplicably, higher allowances are sometimes paid in places with lower costs, Mr. Daigle said.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay has acknowledged the problems. He's already announced projects to build more affordable on-base military housing, which, as Mr. Daigle has noted, should help long-term. Mr. MacKay has also said his department and Treasury Board are working on a solution in line with the ombudsman's recommendation that PLDs more closely reflect the local cost of living.

Those commitments are welcome. But, as the ombudsman himself has said in response, there is an "immediate" need for relief for those serving this country in Cold Lake, especially among the junior ranks.

This problem has festered for far too long already. When some Forces members at Cold Lake have, according to Mr. Daigle's report, resorted to declaring bankruptcy, an order to "stand by" doesn't cut it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 15, 2013 A9

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